We arrived into Jaipur after our first Indian overnight train. Bleary-eyed and a little dazed, we emerged into the crowd of rickshaw and taxi drivers clamouring for our attention and allowed ourselves to be bundled into a pre-paid AC taxi to our hotel where, from the vantage point of our sunny roof terrace, we planned our time in the Rajasthani capital.
Jaipur – the Pink City – was not always pink, it gets its nickname from the decree in 1876 to paint every single building within the old city walls pink (the traditional colour of welcome) for the visit of the Prince of Wales. To this day, the government pays to keep each and every building, from the grandest palace facades all the way down to the shabbiest shop fronts, painted the same shade of pink. We’d expected a walkable and possibly even pedestrianised old town, but this is one of the most densely crowded places in the whole city, bustling with bazaars and grid-locked traffic. It remains the beating heart of Jaipur and not at all a museum piece.
Jaipur was once solely contained within the old city walls, but not long after being founded in the 18th century, the city burst through the walls into an ever-growing sprawl outside. Our hotel was on a small lane between Station Road and M.I. Road, two of the main arteries in the modern city, so attempting to get anywhere involved tackling the chaotic onslaught of Jaipur traffic.
Our first mistake was to assume walking that was an option. After regularly racking up over 20km per day in the megalopolises of Beijing and Tokyo, we thought a 10 minute trip round the corner in Jaipur should at least be possible. And yes, it was possible, with a swift readjustment to what “a quick stroll round the block” would entail.
Firstly, there are no real pavements separating you from the somehow-functioning chaos on the road. Where pavements do survive, they are not for people. If you’re moving along, you belong on the road. Pavements are motorbike parking spaces, fruit and veg stall spaces, or even food preparation areas. It’s no wonder people rely on rickshaws and taxis to get anywhere – it’s common for some locals to hire a driver for the day, and for well-off families to employ one permanently
There is some method to the madness on the roads, with an underlying hierarchy that keeps everything moving. At any opportunity people will try their luck and overtake, undertake, or squeeze through minuscule gaps but, at a head-on confrontation, the natural hierarchy prevails. Basically, the beefier your vehicle and engine, the higher up the food chain you sit. At the very bottom are lowly pedestrians and hand-carts; they don’t really stand a chance. Next come the cycle rickshaws, then auto-rickshaws (‘autos’), and finally cars. There are two exceptions to this rule:
1. Autos. Whilst not quite as beefy as cars, they are much better at weaving in and out of small spaces to overtake long queues of jammed up traffic.
2. Actual beef. Cows, as a holy animal, are given a free pass to wander across the roads as they please. Or even sit down for a rest if they feel like it.
Jaipur gained its position of power in Rajasthan and its wealth thanks to a strong trade of rich textiles and precious gemstones. The Maharajas secured Jaipur’s strength in Rajasthan with marriages of political alliances to daughters of various powerful families from across the state. These wives had their own wealth and, free to spend it in the bazaars as they wished, frequently bought exquisite hand-dyed silks and gemstones, both for themselves and as gifts for their families across Rajasthan.
The passion for trade and business is still strong today, and not just in the bazaars: everyone is trying to sell you something.
Once they have you in the back of their auto, drivers start their sales pitch. It’s not a million miles from being bombarded with adverts through the speakers during a Ryanair flight. The pitch invariably begins with “Which country are you from?” and progresses to “Do you like [insert purchasable item here]?” Some drivers cut to the chase asking if we liked gemstones or sarees. Others managed to get a wary “ye-ess…” out of us with the pretty open-ended “Do you like books?” or “Do you like Indian food?”
Once we’d swatted away the sales pitch, the auto rides were quite fun. We sped through the kaleidoscopic colours of the city walls, the food stalls, the flower garlands and saris in clouds of dust kicked up by our auto and the hundreds of others vying for space.
We promoted ourselves to the top of the food chain once, when we hired an air-conditioned people carrier for a day-long tour of Jaipur’s main sites with Jaipur Magic.
We started at Hawa Mahal (Palace of Winds) which was built for the ladies of the court to safely observe life in the bazaars without being seen themselves. The intricately carved front wall is the most famous image of Jaipur and is, of course, painted the mandatory pink.
Turning away from the people-watching windows at the top of the Hawa Mahal gives a panoramic view over the Jantar Mantar ‘observatory’. This is one of 5 outdoor observatories in India built by Maharaja Jai Singh II (who founded Jaipur, and after whom it’s named). These ‘instruments of calculation’ look more giant sculptures but, as explained and demonstrated by our guide, are still functional today. One can tell you when it’s noon in various cities around the world, another shows under which zodiac sign a child born at any given moment would fall, and another is quite simply the biggest sundial in the world.
The Maharaja’s love for geometry and precision extends beyond the observatory into the bazaars. They are divided into nine equal rectangles; two as the private property of the palace (these yellow buildings are the only ones inside the city walls not to be painted pink) and each of the remaining seven assigned to a given craft, as set out in ancient Hindu texts. We passed shop after shop selling stationery and books before reaching Bapu Bazaar. This was a riot of colour, packed with jewel-bright sarees, harem pants, and shawls alongside heaps and heaps of sparkling bangles.
After our tour of the old city we headed east out towards Amber Fort, Jaigarh Fort and Nahargarh Fort, passing a beautiful lake palace, some camels, and two wild peacocks (India’s national bird) on the way.
Jaigarh and Nahargarh forts both occupy imposing positions on high mountain ridges. Jaigarh was built to protect Amber fort from Mughal invaders or other Rajput clans, and Nahargarh was built to protect the Pink City. Nahargarh offers the best views over Jaipur and is popular with local teenagers for sunset picnics, but Amber Fort is the jewel in the crown.
Before they relocated to Jaipur, Amber Fort was the original home of Maharaja Jai Singh II, his armies, wives, concubines, extended family, servants and staff. The fort has been very well preserved, and in parts carefully restored by his descendants who are still Jaipur’s royal family today.
Every corner of the fort is incredibly photogenic, from the procession of elephants trooping through Suraj Pol (sun gate) into the vast sandstone courtyard of Jaleb Chowk to the peaceful inner garden courtyard and sweeping views from the high towers. The most beautiful part was the chamber tiled entirely in mirrored and blue mercury glass mosaics. When candles are lit in this chamber the mosaics give the effect of a million stars at night. It was built for the Maharaja’s favourite wife who preferred to sleep outside, but as a Queen was no longer able to do so.
It was at Amber Fort that we may have fallen victim to a small scam from our guide. We’d planned to take an elephant ride up to the fort but, on seeing the queues, our guide declared it would take at least 2 hours and we’d go to another place. We assumed it was the same set-up but entering the fort from another gate, so didn’t really question him. In fact, the car deposited us at a house in Amber town where a local man had set up his own elephant stable in the patch of land in front of his house. Rather than a grand procession up the hill to the fort, we had a rather unceremonious circuit round the block on an elephant whose name translates as ‘eyeliner’. There was no way this cost the same as the official route at the fort, but we consoled ourselves with the hope that maybe the extra profit made by our guide’s elephant-keeper mate would be used for our elephant’s food and welfare. Maybe.
Perched at the top of Amber Fort, overlooking Jaleb Chowk, is the restaurant 1135AD. In spite of its potential as a tourist-trap, the complete lack of signage means you wouldn’t find it by chance. We booked a table there (and a driver for the evening) after a recommendation from a friend. Although you pay top dollar for the setting, our Rajasthani thalis were excellent. As everywhere else, the staff are keen to ensure your food isn’t too spicy, meaning that usually it’s actually less hot than we’d be used to at home.
Post dinner, on the way back to the hotel, our driver decided this was the perfect time to stop at his mate’s shop and buy a carpet (standard), but after convincing him that a carpet was never going to fit in our backpacks, we headed back.
Rajasthan is all about roof-top restaurants. If you’ve read our other posts, you’ll know we love a high-up city view so the next evening, after and a few sunset drinks on the roof terrace of our own hotel, we went round the corner for dinner on the terrace of the popular Peacock Rooftop Restaurant. Our hotel was well placed for some street-side snacking too. Timian had his first lassi of the trip at the famous Lassiwalla on M.I. Road. It’s spawned a lot of copycat places of the same name, all close by, but with the help of Lonely Planet, we think we went to the original. We also bought a box of Indian sweets to enjoy on our roof terrace. Whilst we eat a lot of Indian food at home, it’s always savoury food so these were new to us. Some taste better than they look and others look much, much better than they taste.
Our favourite activity in Jaipur, and potentially of the whole trip so far, was the cooking class we took with chef Lokesh Mathur at his home-run business Jaipur Cooking Classes. We picked the menu we wanted to make in advance and, when we arrived Lokesh had printed out all ingredients, quantities and instructions for each recipe for us to take away.
We made so much food. After all the tasters we were given during the preparation there was barely room for the huge feast we sat down to afterwards! We’d chosen a dhal, vegetable biryani, paneer tikka, garlic and plain naan breads, malai koftas, a fresh green chutney, and gulab jammun. Lokesh showed us how to make every part completely from scratch, including his own masala mixes for the sauces, his recipe for chai and even the paneer! Making cheese from scratch felt like being given the secret to printing your own money or turning gravel into gold.
The classes are held at his family home and are the perfect mix of an educational, fun class with a top chef followed by a warm, friendly family dinner with Lokesh and his wife. They have some amazing stories of the people they’ve met running these classes but also their time living in Bahrain, where Lokesh was the chef at an exclusive 5-star hotel, and his time in Dubai as the official Indian chef to the Crown Prince!
Although we did have to deflect a lot of unwanted sales pitches in Jaipur, there were lots of beautiful things we would have happily bought if only our backpacks were big enough. The cooking class turned out to be the best souvenir of all, though. The folded-up recipe pages easily tucked into our bags and mean we can, hopefully, make the delicious dishes again and again when we get home.